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Thu, 27 Feb 2014

2banner, which tells you when someone else is looking at the same web page

I was able to release a pretty nice piece of software today, courtesy of my employer, ZipRecruiter. If you have a family of web pages, and whenever you are looking at one you want to know when someone else is looking at the same page, you can use my package. The package is called 2banner, because it pops up a banner on a page whenever two people are looking at it. With permission from ZipRecruiter, I have put it on github, and you can download and use it for free.

A typical use case would be a customer service organization. Say your users create requests for help, and the the customer service reps have to answer the requests. There is a web page with a list of all the unserviced requests, and each one has a link to a page with details about what is requested and how to contact the person who made the request. But it might sometimes happes that Fred and Mary independently decide to service the same request, which is at best a waste of effort, and at worst confusing for the customer who gets email from both Fred and Mary and doesn't know how to respond. With 2banner, when Mary arrives at the customer's page, she sees a banner in the corner that says Fred is already looking at this page!, and at the same time a banner pops up in Fred's browser that says Mary has started looking at this page! Then Mary knows that Fred is already on the case, and she can take over a different one, or Fred and Mary can communicate and decide which of them will deal with this particular request.

You can similarly trick out the menu page itself, to hide the menu items that someone is already looking out.

I wanted to use someone else's package for this, but I was not able to find one, so I wrote one myself. It was not as hard as I had expected. The system comprises three components:

  • The back-end database for recording who started looking at which pages and when. I assumed a SQL database and wrote a component that uses Perl's DBIx::Class module to access it, but it would be pretty easy throw this away and use something else instead.

  • An API server that can propagate notifications like “user X is now looking at page Y” and “user X is no longer looking at page Y” into the database, and which can answer the question “who else is looking at page Y right now?”. I used Perl's Catalyst framework for this, because our web app already runs under it. It would not be too hard to throw this away and use something else instead. You could even write a standalone server using HTTP::Server, and borrow most of the existing code, and probably have it working in under an hour.

  • A JavaScript thingy that lives in the web page, sends the appropriate notifications to the API server, and pops up the banner when necessary. I used jQuery for this. Probably there is something else you could use instead, but I have no idea what it is, because I know next to nothing about front-end web programming. I was happy to have the chance to learn a little about jQuery for this project.

Often a project seems easy but the more I think about it the harder it seems. This project was the opposite. I thought it sounded hard, and I didn't want to do it. It had been an outstanding request of the CS people for some time, but I guess everyone else thought it sounded hard too, because nobody did anything about it. But the longer I let it percolate around in my head, the simpler it seemed. As I considered it, one difficulty after another evaporated.

Other than the jQuery stuff, which I had never touched before, the hardest part was deciding what to do about the API server. I could easily have written a standalone, special-purpose API server, but I felt like it was the wrong thing, and anyway, I didn't want to administer one. But eventually I remembered that our main web site is driven by Catalyst, which is itself a system for replying to HTTP requests, which already has access to our database, and which already knows which user is making each request.

So it was natural to say that the API was to send HTTP requests to certain URLs on our web site, and easy-peasy to add a couple of handlers to the existing Catalyst application to handle the API requests, query the database, and send the right replies.

I don't know why it took me so long to think of doing the API server with Catalyst. If it had been someone else's suggestion I would probably feel dumb for not having thought of it myself, because in hindsight it is so obvious. Happily, I did think of it, because it is clearly the right solution for us.

It was not too hard to debug. The three components are largely independent of one another. The draft version of the API server responded to GET requests, which are easier to generate from the browser than the POST requests that it should be getting. Since the responses are in JSON, it was easy to see if the API server was replying correctly.

I had to invent techniques for debugging the jQuery stuff. I didn't know the right way to get diagnostic messages out of jQuery, so I put a big text area on the web page, and had the jQuery routines write diagnostic messages into it. I don't know if that's what other people do, but I thought it worked pretty well. JavaScript is not my ideal language, but I program in Perl all day, so I am not about to complain. Programming the front end in JavaScript and watching stuff happen on the page is fun! I like writing programs that make things happen.

The package is in ZipRecruiter's GitHub repository, and is available under a very lenient free license. Check it out.

(By the way, I really like working for ZipRecruiter, and we are hiring Perl and Python developers. Please send me email if you want to ask what it is like to work for them.)


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